Sunday, 7 October 2012

Ghosts by Daylight

Janine di Giovanni, born in New Jersey, a former senior correspondent for The Times, is contributing editor for Vanity Fair. I've read, and was impressed by, some of her reports from war zones, hence my interest in this memoir.

"Ghosts by Daylight" is, on the one hand, the story of an amour fou that di Giovanni calls "Love affair with Bruno, 1993-2009" although I didn't come away with the impression that this love is over: "And he sends me messages that no one else would understand. What do the messages say? They are always about love, but a certain kind of love. They are always about destiny, fate, surrendering. Redemption." On the other hand, it is a book about the author's fascination (and addiction to?) war. She does not really elaborate on why she seems to like spending time in war zones (she does however a convincing job describing it) but claims that: "War did not frighten me; cocktail parties in London, offices in New York, and checking my bank account frightened me."

How come she decided to terminate the love affair with Bruno Girodon, a French cameraman? "Long ago, when I met him, I knew Bruno was like Ulysses. He would roam the earth but would always yearn for home and mourn those whom he loved. But when he finally reached the home he wanted and needed, he would pace like a wounded tiger in a cage. He could not settle. He could not be settled. He had tried because of how much he loved me, and his son. But it was impossible, and it was killing me, and it was killing him to try." This not only describes Bruno Girodon, this also describes Janine di Giovanni.

After two or three years trying to live a regular life in Paris, she gets a call from a doctor at Val de Grace, a military hospital: "'I wanted to tell you,' she said, 'that I'm here with your husband and I am keeping him here under orders for several weeks.' When I asked why, she said it was her belief that he was exhausted and suicidal." Bruno finds help in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings, Janine tries to come to grips with addiction: "The relationship one has with drugs or alcohol or whatever it is that takes you into another realm – addiction – is something I struggled to understand. I had tried everything in my life, but nothing ever caught me in its grip." In time, she felt like AA was taking her husband from her. "I knew it was keeping him sober, but I was not sure, as someone had told me, that it was not one addiction replacing another." And if so? One of the two is killing you, the other helps you to live. Moreover, when Luca, Janine's and Bruno's son, was six months old, Janine would go back to Baghdad, leaving him with his father and his nanny in Paris. "My breasts leaked milk and I missed my baby with a ferocity that I could not understand." She flies back to Paris. And, quite some time later, to Afghanistan ... In June 2012, she reported for the Daily Beast from war-torn Syria. To me, that sounds pretty much like an addiction to war zones.

This "memoir of war and love" is also a book about war reporting. About fighting in Côte d'Ivoire she writes: "At 6 a.m., the phone rang. It was the foreign desk of CNN in London. 'What's going on down there?' someone shouted down the crackling line. 'We are hearing news of a coup, we are hearing news of another war ...'. I got on the phone and did a live report about not knowing what was going on, but describing the scenes on the street, the fear, the disorientation, the feeling in the air shortly before a country blows sky high." CNN, by the way, when it comes to giving fellow journalists a ride in their armoured cars, has  "the reputation of not helping anyone but their own. The BBC people, however, were more generous ...".

"Ghosts by Daylight" is a moving, informative, and very personal book (although I thought the parts elaborating on the author's pregnancy overly long {women readers might see that differently}); I highly recommend it, not least, because of insights such as this: "But do we ever see things that we really don't want to see?"

Janine di Giovanni
Ghosts by Daylight
A Memoir of War and Love
Bloomsbury, London 2011

No comments: